Monday, June 2, 2008

Herbal Suspect

I first learned about the potential dangers of taking herbal supplements in medical school. The point was driven home by a patient with rhabdomyolysis. Another with acute liver toxicity. Many an attending warned us to ask about supplements or instilled the fear that anything could make it's way into an herbal pill, and thus their usage should be actively discouraged.

I frowned at the lack of strong evidence supporting their usage. I have to admit that I grouped those who used herbs (and usually it was multiple offenses) as a little bit out there. You know, a crunchier sort, not grounded in science or rigor.

My mother, as luck would have it, would fall into that group. She is all about the holistic and the natural. Her evidence has always been in the form of testimonials and N=1 logic. A friend cures constipation with mega doses of Vitamin C? She's on it. Her cousin's babysitter ate flaxseed once and had more energy? Done. A friend of a friend of a friend of a friend (who is wife to a physician!!!!) swears by walking on her hands to cure the hiccups? She asks for how long. I've often wondered how half my genes are from her.

I, on the other hand, harbor a healthy fear of supplements, with herbs topping the list. They frighten me because they can very well be biologically active in non-perfectly-elucidated ways. Perhaps it's the complete lack of control in terms of production, dosing, effect, and potency that scare the OCD scientist inside me. Then, there's the fear of hidden toxicity. Who knows what could happen? A couple of years ago, I would have never thought I would ever try taking herbal supplements. No way.

Yet, when I started stressing about returning to work and pumping enough to keep my newborn son fed exclusively on breastmilk a few months ago, I read with interest about fenugreek and Mother's Milk Tea. Really? Increase milk production? Mine more liquid gold with every pump? Of course, I didn't look into possible negative side effects at all; I didn't even care. If it meant being able to nurse longer, I would consider trying it. Fear of the unknown and the unaccounted for never entered the equation.

I decided to try Mother's Milk Tea. The ingredients include fennel seed, anise seed, coriander seed, spearmint leaf, lemongrass leaf, lemon verbena leaf, althea root, blessed thistle herb, and fenugreek seed. Listing out those ingredients makes me feel like a witch mixing a potion in a cauldron in my backyard.

I drank my first cup excitedly, thinking about how much more milk I'd produce that day. It tasted slightly bitter and medicinal, certainly nothing I would voluntarily choose to drink if given the option. Over the next few days, I diligently brewed my herbal concotion and did notice an increase in how much I pumped if I drank two or more cups a day. Maybe.

So, now, it's been a little over the month, and I have often wondered aloud why Costco doesn't carry Mother's Milk Tea by the crateload. For my child, I've recklessly turned from a science-based pragmatist into a herbal-tea-chugging junkie who's just looking for her next fix.

Which makes me think about how much motherhood (and the compulsiveness to be a "good mother") has changed me.

Also, if I grow a third eye, you'll know why.


  1. Which makes me think about how much motherhood (and the compulsiveness to be a "good mother") has changed me.

    I'm not a doctor... I came to start reading here through FatDoctor. But I had to comment here.

    If nothing else (other than the obvious increase in milk supply) comes of your experiment, I hope you see that those of us "crunchier types" often started out like you - wanting proof, wanting 2+2 to always equal 4. But in the pursuit of doing what we think is best for our babies, we'll often go the route of a cup of tea rather than a prescription drug. We can grow the fenugreek ourselves - who knows who got payed off to get chemicals quickly passed through the FDA.

    (And if there's a history of peanut allergies in your family, you're going to want to be careful with the fenugreek. Same family.)

  2. I'm an academic and like to have research, you know, some empirical data to ease my mind.. but last year I started to see a MD who specializes in integrative medicine (he trained with Andrew Weil) and I have to say that I am a complete convert. I have a couple of chronic issues and since trying out some complementary modalities - including some herbs recommended by my doc - I have been almost asymptomatic (I have lupus).

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  4. I'm late to the party and I'm not a doctor, just a pumping mom, but eat your oatmeal! It really seems to help, and the very worst that can happen is you have a cheap, high-fiber breakfast (although it doesn't really matter what form you get your oats in, cookies and granola bars are full of calories)



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